I’ll be honest. I’ve tried to answer this question before and come up short, in fact I’ve been pondering this post for the entire summer. Mainly because I was afraid to answer it. Meg or Michelle?
It’s a great debatable subject, but how can I possibly choose between the two actress infatuations whose films have been part of my life for more than 20 years?
I probably shouldn’t do this, and I’m sure I’ll regret it in the morning, but I can’t resist.
Let’s break it down:
It’s hard to nail down one breakthrough performance from Michelle Pfeiffer. Maybe Grease 2?, Scarface? or The Witches of Eastwick? She was certainly well established by the time The Fabulous Baker Boys came around thanks to Married to the Mob, in which she portrayed the resilient widow of a Long Island Mafia hit man. The comedic and affecting flair she brought to the role of Angela De Marco reminding many of the great Carole Lombard. Meg Ryan’s breakthrough performance came just a year later. A cameo role in Top Gun had brought her some attention and an unsympathetic turn in Promised Land showed she had talent. Enter Sally Albright!
(And on the subject of Sally…)
The Fabulous Baker Boys for Michelle, When Harry met Sally for Meg. Michelle was Academy Award nominated, provided vocals on all the songs, and sizzled on top of Jeff Bridges’ piano, and yet I’m still tempted to choose Meg on this one. Mainly because When Harry met Sally is a movie where I always think, “Wow, Meg is absolutely amazing in this” every single time I watch it.
Meg Ryan’s prime lasted from 1989′s When Harry Met Sally, through to 1998’s You’ve Got Mail, hitting a peak with Sleepless in Seattle in 1993. Looking back the success of Sleepless was probably the worst thing that could have happened to Meg because the public wanted her to play Annie Reed in every movie after that. Michelle’s prime lasted much longer — initially from 1982′s Grease II through 1988′s Dangerous Liaisons, Tequila Sunrise, and Married to the Mob. Consolidation in the mid 90’s with Dangerous Minds and One Fine Day, followed by a resurgence in 2000 courtesy of What Lies Beneath.Taking the 1990s on their own I’d give Meg a slight edge, but overall Michelle just has a more interesting, consistent, complete body of work, capped off by her improbable comeback as a supporting actress in the last few years.
Acting is a lot harder to judge than competitive sports with the only statistics being award nominations and box office takings. Michelle wins hands down on awards with six Golden Globe and three Academy Award nominations dwarfing Meg’s total of three nominations at the ‘Globes. At the box office Meg had the edge up to the end of the 90s, although not as conclusively as you might expect. In contrast to the perceived notion, Meg Ryan dramas When a Man Loves a Woman and Courage Under Fire did far better box office than comedies French Kiss and I.Q., and in their rom-com head-to-head in the mid 90s Michelle’s One Fine Day outgrossed Meg’s Addicted to Love. Michelle was also the only one of the pair to open a film with Dangerous Minds.
In Michelle Pfeiffer’s films, there’s almost always a definitive scene that you remember, one of those Pfeiffer moments where she basically tells the director, “When I’m finished with this take, we’ll just send it right to the Oscar committee”, think of the audition scene from The Fabulous Baker Boys, or Selina’s transformation in Batman Returns. No matter what the movie, Michelle always has that one memorable moment.Leaving her famous “moment” in When Harry met Sally aside, Meg Ryan was almost always better in understated scenes, such as the stunning sequence in Steve Kloves’ Flesh and Bone where she walks through the fields that surround her abandoned childhood home. I think The Pfeiffer takes it all here, mainly because a montage of her best scenes would be more fun to watch than a montage of Meg’s best scenes.
This is a tough one basically because these two could throw anything at you –the characters in Michelle’s ouvre containing schoolteachers, Mafia wives, femme fatales and sultry torch singers. In response Meg can offer alcoholic mothers, Gulf War pilots, spaced-out strippers and her trademark Manic Pixie Dream Girls.Four performances from the heyday of their careers highlight why I really can’t set them apart: Meg’s Addicted to Love, where she’s genuinely funny, genuinely likeable, and carries the movie on sheer charisma, in one of her most underrated performances; and When a Man Loves a Woman where she deserved a nomination for her performance as alcoholic Alice Green.For Pfeiffer it’s Frankie and Johnny‘s lonely waitress, and What Lies Beneath, where she had to work with a character who was practically a blank slate, that stand out. I can’t imagine those films having the same impact if the actresses swapped roles.
With the benefit of hindsight and a time machine, if Michelle Pfeiffer could play all of Meg Ryan’s roles, and vice-versa, who would do a better job?
I’m sure that audiences wouldn’t have taken to Meg in many of Michelle’s serious parts such as The Age Of Innocence, White Oleander and Dangerous Liaisons, and I just can’t imagine her in Pfeiffer’s signature role of Susie Diamond in The Fabulous Baker Boys. She definitely would have taken Dangerous Minds and the role of Selina Kyle/Catwoman somewhere, maybe not to the same heights, but it would have been different. And I think she matches everywhere else. But Pfeiffer with Meg Ryan’s parts? Michelle has openly admitted that she doesn’t trust comedy roles; even though watching One Fine Day always reinforces just how lovely and sardonically funny she is. As a result Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail may not have been the hits they were; although I’d have been intrigued to see the chemistry if Pfeiffer had been paired with Tom Hanks. Michelle as Sally Albright opposite Billy Crystal doesn’t appeal to me, but she’d have carried off the love interest and fantasy/whimsy roles such as Prelude to a Kiss and Joe Vs The Volcano with style and ease. The one movie she would have improved was Proof of Life, but overall I just don’t think it works as well as Meg with Michelle’s career.
Hey, it’s not as if Meg Ryan didn’t made some bad career choices, My Mom’s new Boyfriend and The Women to name just two. But she usually hit more than she missed, at least until 2004, and every new Meg Ryan movie felt like an event, even if the film wasn’t always the best. Strange to say, but I think Meg’s exile over the last few years has actually added lustre to her legacy.Even though some of her recent films have bombed at the box office, Michelle Pfeiffer’s aura is timeless. She wouldn’t have looked out of place in any film, in any era, in fact I often think she was born too late. A lady with her looks and acting ability would have made a perfect femme fatale in those classic film noir of the past. Above all Michelle has been incredibly consistent, often rising above the quality of the films that she found herself acting in. Very often it’s the characters she played that people remember, rather than the films that she starred in.
Michelle’s performance as Catwoman sparked a brief period of Pfeiffermania in the early 90s, but that pales by comparison to Meg’s ten year tenure as America’s sweetheart. In fact, thanks to films like French Kiss and You’ve Got Mail, for some people, Meg Ryan will always be the Queen of romantic comedy.
This is a tough one to judge because one person’s bad movie can be someone else’s favourite film. For me, even the allure of Michelle can’t redeem some of her films that I don’t care for. I can only watch a few minutes of New Year’s Eve and my DVD of Deep End of the Ocean ended up at the charity shop after I tried to watch it recently. Even Against the Ropes never had that effect on me.
Michelle Pfeiffer is devastatingly beautiful. This fact was famously demonstrated in the media hype before the release of Batman Returns. One journalist recalled how the last time he interviewed her he’d rushed out, phoned his editor, and got him to hold the front page for the best feature ever. When he transcribed the tape, he realised Michelle had actually said nothing of interest — he’d just been hypnotised by those eyes…
As for Meg, she was the girl next-door whom every man is supposed to want to marry and bring home for the holidays. She was genuine and non-threatening and her beauty was combined with a kind of knowingness. One thing Meg certainly never had to fake—in a deli or on a set—was luminescence. Joe versus the Volcano director John Patrick Shanley remembers a cameraman’s amazement when Ryan stepped up to her mark after he had lit the scene for her stand-in. Says Shanley: “He put the light meter up to Meg’s face and said, ‘Do you see that? Her face reflects 200 times more light than the other girls!’
Meg or Michelle is my eternal dilemma; and even the weight of scientific opinion only muddies the waters.
I’ve realised there’s no way Meg vs. Michelle can ever end with a decisive winner; because neither will lose. They are equals, and I adore them both unequivocally. For me to try and choose one over the other would not only be futile, but utterly impossible. Let’s leave it at that for now!